Visionary Poetry 2: some working definitions
Religious poems are not necessarily visionary, or spiritual; rather, most are mundane, in terms of poetic style and content. For example, your average religious poem in a greeting card often suffers from sentimentality and cliche.
Visionary poems are often not religious, in any traditional sense. For example, the shamanic traditions, their songs and chants and poems (eg. the source materials for Rothenberg's Shaking the Pumpkin); these sources are worldwide, and predate all the known organized, institutional religions, including Hinduism, which is possibly the world's oldest extant institutionalized religious path. Ed says: Visionary thought includes all possibilities, not just religious ones, I believe.
Finally, spiritual poems. Religious and visionary poems may be spiritual, but are not necessarily so. For example, an atheist's anti-religion poem is "religious" in the sense that it is the misère side of traditional faith, its opposite and its antagonist. But this is not necessarily spiritual, And not all visionary poems, which can be about the most ordinary moments that become sublime, are about religious themes, nor are they necessarily spiritual at core.
So if the words "religious", "visionary", and "spiritual" are not synonyms, we must acknowledge their differences, or risk getting into trouble.
I am interested here mostly in visionary or spiritual poetry, and not interested in religious poetry per se. I view most religious poetry to be statements of faith (credo), in the same way that most political poetry is a statement of faith and/or belief. Often religious poetry repeats dogma and doctrine, in an attempt to state institutional beliefs in a fresh, personal, individual manner; this is what Hopkins does, essentially, and also the Metaphysical Poets, and John Donne, for example.
I am much more interested in records of visionary experience, shamanic experience—transpersonal, archetypal, mythopoetic, immanent and transdendent. Perhaps not coincidentally, these appellations have been applied at various times to my own poems, artwork, and music.
Zen enlightenment poems are a whole genre dedicated to recording and recognizing spiritual states of being; the Upanishads; the lineage of the Medieval Christian mystics, with their sermons and chants and artworks; the Taoist sages. There are many commonalities here, with perhaps more in common then there are differences; and it's interesting to observe both difference and samenesses in play, in the trail of creative work they leave in their wake.
Because what's really interesting is that visionary experiences tend to be recorded by their experiencers in poetic writings, in poetry itself, in manuscripts that some say pass a taste of the experience—rather than in, say, reportorial or analytic or academic non-fiction prose. Perhaps the visionary experience itself requires an artistic response, a form of heightened expression, beyond the ordinary, mundane ways of saying things. One definition of poetry is that it is ordinary speech made exalted, everyday language heightened and condensed; poetry thus may be the best medium for communicating the vision to others.
I'm thinking of Hildegard of Bingen's illuminated manuscripts of her recorded visions; I'm thinking of some of Whitman's poems; I'm thinking of Rumi, Rilke, and Meister Eckhart, and of Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra; I'm thinking of Carl Jung's own hand-painted and hand-written Red Book, where he kept a record of his own visions, drew his own mandalas, and which often guided him towards areas to study in his psychological work; to name only a few.
One of the things I'm interested in, as it turns up in creative work, is what some have called spiritual technology. Mircea Eliade, in his seminal academic work Shamanism, termed such tools "archaic techniques of ecstasy." But other tools are the turning dance of the Sufis (the Remembrance of God, or zhikr), the practice of meditation (which turns up everywhere, in rather similar forms), walking the Labyrinth, chanting in groups, ritual, and so on. Much of what I have read in Tibetan Buddhism treats sprituality in this technical way; part of their appeal is that they have carefully enumerated psychological principles and habits that are universally human. Some of these many spiritual technologies have been described as tools that help the person make a change in themselves, which thereafter makes a change in their world. I'm interested in how that manifests in poetry—not in a prescriptive manner, or as a recipe—that would be simple spell-casting or superstition—but as a paper trail fhat may inspire others to follow similar trails, if not the same trail.
There is a whole literature along these lines, extant and alive, but it is rarely discussed in creative writing and literary circles. In our culture dominated by the rational-scientific worldview, there is a shyness about being painted with the brush of the "irrational." It is also possible that, in creative writing seminars at least, no one wants to talk about it because it's not teachable—in opposition to the way craft and technique are teachable. Or so most believe. Actually, vision is teachable; and that is what the whole tradition of spiritual technology is all about. One has to open that door for oneself, however.